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4 April 2018

Ian Hislop should ask why some women are too modest to appear on Have I Got News For You

If HIGNFY has created an environment that women are reluctant to enter, that is not on women – that’s on Hislop and friends.

By Tracy King

Modesty means something different to women. When a man is accused of modesty, it’s a compliment. He isn’t boasting of his many achievements, but the accusation itself is an acknowledgement that he is indeed accomplished, and well done him. Male modesty is a virtue, but it’s also inconsequential, because other men are fully prepared to raise him up anyway.

When applied to women, on the other hand, modesty is very loaded indeed. Sure, it could mean our reluctance to boast about our accomplishments or put ourselves forward for opportunities that are usually just handed to men who need not ask for them – but it also means something else.

It means covering up our cleavages and not wearing too much makeup. Put simply, it means not tempting men – because if you’re immodest, then you’re asking for it. Men don’t generally get punished for this sort of immodesty, so the cost of, say, appearing on television, is different for them.

In doing so, a man doesn’t generally attract misogynistic comments about his appearance. He would not expect to receive comments about his weight, nor speculation about his relationship and general shag-ability, nor unwelcome opinions on the size of his boobs and the length of his hair (too short:must be a lesbian or frigid or unsexy. Too long: a slut, a honeytrap, a femme fatale). Even if he does fall victim to such comments, they’re probably less worrying to him than to a woman who also has to navigate stalkers and street harassers.

So, when Ian Hislop confidently explains the lack of women hosts on Have I Got News For You with, “on the whole, women are slightly more reticent and think, maybe modestly: ‘I can’t do that.’ Maybe more men in public life say: ‘Yes I can do that.’”, he is almost on the brink of an epiphany. If he can imagine women thinking “I can’t do that”, then he just needs to think a leeetle further to get to “because”.

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Perhaps it’s I can’t do that because the cost of attracting male attention by appearing on TV as a woman is sometimes too high. Or I can’t do that because when my peers did, they received misogynistic abuse for days. Or I can’t do that because I’d probably be facing an all-male panel who will joke about sexual harassment.

If Have I Got News For You has created an environment that women are reluctant to enter, that is not on women – that’s on Hislop and friends.

That women are so rarely seen on panel shows that they stand out (and therefore attract extra criticism for superficial things) is obviously a problem, and it’ll only be fixed by such shows including more women. Eventually, internet misogynists will either get the message, or get bored. But, cries Hislop, we have tried! The producers do invite more women than men, but they say no!

I bet they do, mate, I bet they do. One TV comedy panel show is not the world, of course, but the diversity problem is near-universal. There are many reasons why panels have a male skew, and the subsequent online hate a woman receives is just one of them.

In my experience, one of the most common reasons for women being unavailable to speak, or cancelling, is childcare. Women carry out 60 per cent more unpaid work than men, much of which is childcare, and are less likely to drop everything for an overnight trip to an event or London TV studio, particularly if they are a single mother.

If producers or event organisers are serious about achieving gender balanced panels, then they have to offer to either pay more or make onsite provisions for childcare, for both mothers and fathers. Yes, it is “unfair” that producers may have to spend more money on speakers with kids, but it’s also “unfair” that women still, despite everything, are the primary caregivers. If you’re trying to attract more women without actually doing anything to address the structural reasons for the imbalance, then you’re doomed to fail.

Another issue is “the Rolodex problem”, in which a producer’s contacts skew male. Often, the pool of women invited to appear on panels is smaller because the person doing the bookings is a man and hasn’t noticed the many brilliant women in any given industry, either because they aren’t looking or because they don’t think women are funny. (Because, thanks to sexism, the bar is set way higher for women than men – when a man isn’t funny it’s never because he’s a man, but when a female bombs on a panel show like HIGNFY, the entire gender is blamed).

In practice, a solution to the gender imbalance means more work for producers or event organisers, bigger budgets to cover childcare or to make us an offer we can’t refuse (seriously, if you want more women, just offer us a massive chunk of cash, we’ll be lining up to compensate for that gender pay gap), and other unpalatable but necessary culture changes. But the alternative is just to maintain the all-male status quo, and I seriously question the motives of anyone invested in doing that.

The final issue is one of tokenism. “I don’t want to be invited onto a panel just because I’m a woman”, comes the reasonable complaint. I sympathise, but do you really think that the men, the endless panels of average white men, all got there on merit alone? The real tokenism is men and their networks of peers, inviting some dude just because he is some dude. I personally will grab a token invite with both hands because that’s what any man in my position would do. No modesty required.

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